Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate

Believe it or not, there are actually two things better than eating a dessert that includes chocolate, nuts, and booze. One: using said dessert to help raise nearly $900 for a local food charity. Two: catching the look on this cutie’s face while she was chowing down on one.

Should I? Yep.

How did I learn this? The Hideout’s Soup and Bread dinner. Every Wednesday from January to the first day of spring for the past four years, The Hideout, a funky little bar and music venue in Chicago, hosts a community dinner where six or seven people (chefs and home cooks alike) each volunteer to make different kind of soup–the night I was there choices included roasted tomato, chicken and dumpling, sausage and artichoke, and French onion. The dinner is open to anyone and everyone, and is “pay-what-you-can” with the money going to that week’s chosen charity (usually food-related).

Circle of pecan bars

Since I couldn’t get there early enough to contribute a soup, I was happy to find out they welcomed other treats too. What better excuse to try a bar version of one of my favorite Christmas cookies? With bourbon. And chocolate. I found a recipe from Cook’s Illustrated that was perfect–a salty, nutty shortbread-ish crust topped with a gooey, caramel-y layer flavored with bourbon and vanilla and studded with pecans. As for the chocolate (my own variation), well, if you’re going to gild the lily, you may as well gild it with chocolate.

Crust is almost ready Whisking in the butter Three components

By the time I got to The Hideout around 6, dinner was in full swing and it was packed! I had no idea how many people to expect–20 maybe? It was nasty and snowy and just generally the beginning of February in Chicago and who wants to go out in that? A whole lot of people, it turns out, filling every seat in the place. It reminded me so much of big family dinners–everyone loud and happy and brought together by the promise of a good meal, the kind that warms you up from the inside out.

I barely had time to set my tins down before the bars started disappearing, and they were completely gone within the hour. People must have enjoyed them, if the woman who rolled down her car window and yelled “Your pecan bars were great!” at me as I was leaving was any indication (thank you lady in the car, that made my night!).

Pecan bars Soup and Bread at the Hideout Nothing like a bowl of soup on a snowy night

The best part though? To quote the email I got on Thursday: “We raised an amazing $849! That definitely surpassed our expectations and we’re thrilled to put the donations to use in our Consumer Choice Food Pantry, and for those in need of emergency food.”  A little sugar buzz never hurts to open wallets.

If you’re looking for a good dinner with good people for a good cause, check it out. I’m hoping to go at least once more before they’re over for the season, so you never know, there might be pecan bars to go with the soup and bread!

Snowy day, great for baking
What’s better than soup, bread, and pecan bars on a day that looks like this?

Salted Pecan Squares with Bourbon and Chocolate
Continue reading

Winter Comfort Bread

One of my long-time food quests has been to make a really good, crusty, crunchy loaf of bread. A loaf of bread that’s sturdy and solid and meant to stand up to a lengthy dunk in a steamy bowl of soup or stew. Not a soft, sweet, buttery sandwich bread, but winter comfort bread. I think I finally found it, and it’s the easiest bread I’ve ever made.

The most gorgeous loaf of bread to ever come out of my kitchen

In the past, I’ve tried using two different kinds of baking stones to get the heat of a wood-burning hearth oven, adding a pan of boiling water to my oven or spraying down the walls with water to replicate its steam, and plenty of other tricks. They all work, sort-of. But I didn’t want a sort-of loaf.

You'll need a lot of flour and some really big bowlsGluten-y

This is a loaf to be reckoned with. It uses four pounds of flour, first of all. It will take your biggest mixing bowl and the better part of two days. It’s easiest to cut into hunks and chunks, perfect for serving warm, slathering thickly with butter, and soaking up a rich broth.

Bread dough, post salt waterPretty round bread babies

Conveniently, this is also one of the easiest breads I’ve made. The two days is mostly just waiting. There’s no kneading; you don’t need a mixer. The timing works on your schedule–the pre-ferment can probably wait an extra day; the dough, after the first rise, can be put in the fridge until you’re ready to bake it (I didn’t get around to baking my second loaf for nearly a week–it was still delicious, though a little denser than my first loaf).

Scored and ready to bakeJust a quick peek!

Fair warning: this recipe makes two humongous loaves of bread–if you didn’t guess from the aforementioned four pounds of flour. Unless you have a giant cast iron pot, or just want a more wield-y option, I’d suggest splitting this into four loaves.

Perfect with soup

Crusty Bread Continue reading

What’s Cooking Wednesday: Cookies and parties and tiny pies

My head is a bit all over the place this week. I’ve been trying to get a head start on cookie-making, planning cookies for baking this weekend, plus thinking about what I’ll be bringing to a cookie swap hosted by one of my local spice shops. I promised myself I wasn’t going to overdo it on cookies this year–the problem is picking my favorites! Biscotti, pecan tassies, peanut butter blossoms, chocolate snowcaps, maybe one or two others, and then I’m cutting myself off.

Boxed up

I’m also thinking about what to make for my holiday party. Salmon, definitely; red pepper dip, likely; the rest of the menu is still in draft mode. As with the cookies, I keep having to reign myself in–but there’s so many recipes that sound so good! I figure as long as there’s plenty of wine (mulled and non-), beer, and perhaps some of that plum gin (which should be just about ready), I should be pretty well set.

Finished smoked salmon

I also realized I never shared with you my two contributions to my mom’s Thanksgiving table. I made tiny versions of Smitten Kitchen’s cranberry pie in tiny mason jars that were completely adorable and essentially the fall version of sour cherry pie (and we know how much I love sour cherries). I also contributed some pretty amazing (if I say so myself) Parker house rolls.

Baby pies in baby jars

Perfect rolls

Even with all the cookies and parties and food and planning, I’m not quite feeling like it’s really the holiday season yet. Maybe once I pick up a tree and do my decorating (and figure out how to turn on my new fireplace! I’m inordinately excited about that part) and do my annual viewing of Merry Christmas Charlie Brown! it will sink in.

Dining and Drinking in Paris (Part 1)

There is no doubt that one of the biggest draws of Paris for me was the food. I mean, come on. It’s a food culture practically built on bread and cheese, two of my most favorite food groups.

As I mentioned, I went to Paris with a pretty comprehensive list of places to eat that covered everything from hole-in-the-wall falafel stands to old school French bistros to small plates and wine bars. These are just three of best places I ate during the trip (another post to come shortly with more, but I figured 1,500 words was quite enough to start with): Au Petit Versailles, an amazing cafe; Breizh Cafe for spectacular crepes and cider; and Le Baron Rouge for wine and oysters.

Petite Versaille

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What’s Cooking Wednesday: Almost Thanksgiving!

Just over a week to Thanksgiving! It’s tied with the 4th of July as my favorite food/friends/family holiday. While I don’t have any turkey (or mashed potato or stuffing) recipes to suggest for anyone’s feast, I thought it would be fun to see what I could contribute to the Thanksgiving table.

Let’s start with dessert (as all meals should, really). Might I suggest something slightly different along side the apple and pumpkin pie? How about a plum pie spiced with orange, brandy, ginger, cinnamon and a crunchy, crumbly, nutty topping? Yum.

Plum crumble pie

Cranberries? I have two options, both of which can be done in advance. Option one is equally good accompanying a perfect slice of turkey as it is stirred into a bowl of hot oatmeal on a cold morning–a fantastic conserve of cranberries and oranges, nuts and apricots. You can water-bath process it if you feel like it, or just store in the fridge.

Jammy

Option two is for the slightly more adventurous: pickled spiced cranberries. The berries themselves are delicious, sweet and tart and an excellent complement to the richness of a Thanksgiving meal, but the syrup is equally amazing mixed with some seltzer (…and possibly a little vodka or gin).

Pickled cranberries

Need something to nibble on with said drink? These spiced candied nuts work nicely and conveniently are also delicious (with the pickled cranberries) on a post-Thanksgiving salad with leftover sweet potatoes and goat cheese.

Candied spiced walnuts

And finally, since I feel no meal is complete without bread in some way, shape, or form, cornmeal biscuits with green onion and black pepper. If these are a bit too casual for your dinner table, they do make for a particularly delicious turkey sandwich.

Flaky biscuits, topped with salt and pepper

What are you planning for your Thanksgiving meal (or the leftovers, which are obviously the second best part of the holiday)?

 

Recipes with roots

The more I discover about food, the more I find that the dishes I’m drawn to are the ones with history, with deep roots in the land and the people who live on it. Usually these are not particularly complicated recipes, nor do they call for particularly fancy ingredients or preparations. I love the infinite variety that comes from the simplest ingredients–flour, sugar, butter, eggs, salt, lemon, yeast–and how each family, town, country, culture can make something that is completely and uniquely theirs.

Golden brown and delicious

Of the (many) food-related souvenirs I brought home from Paris, the absolutely beautiful–in picture and word–cookbook A Kitchen in France may be one of my favorites. I stumbled on Mimi Thorisson’s blog, Manger, a few years ago but somehow managed to forget about it until I was flipping through her newly published first book in a tiny cramped aisle of Shakespeare & Co. The pictures of her food, home, and the Medoc countryside are stunning; the stories are the stuff of my daydreams. Most important of all, though, are the recipes.

Six basic ingredients
Butter, sugar, egg, lemon

The recipes in this book are everything I mentioned at the beginning of this post. They’re recipes with roots; roots either in a particular area of France, in Mimi’s family or her neighbors’ history, in a unique local ingredient, in a particular season. Some are incredibly simple, like the recipe below, some with a few more steps, like the bouillabaisse, but what I love about all of them is that it’s easy to feel their history.

Add flour
Risen
Sticky dough

I don’t think it was coincidence that flipping through this book over the course of a week, it kept falling open to this particular recipe. I took it as a sign and as soon as I started mixing the ingredients together, I had an immediate feeling of being home. I knew this smell, the rich combination of butter, sugar, lemon, yeast. I don’t even know exactly what recipe this reminded me of (maybe my grandma’s lemon cream cheese swirls?), but it struck something deep and nostalgic.

There’s nothing particularly local or seasonal about this recipe–it is, after all, only six of the most basic ingredients in baking–but it’s easy to feel the history in it, from when butter and sugar were special treats because they were rare (according to the cookbook, this is a medieval recipe from the town of Pérouges) to when butter and sugar are special treats because they’re a welcome break from multi-syllabic preservatives.

Beyond that, it’s easy and just tastes really, really good–it’s hard to go wrong with warm lemony, buttery brioche dough topped with melted butter and slightly crunchy caramelized sugar. It’s impossible to go wrong actually, which is why you should make this immediately.

Pinch up the edges
Sugared
One delicious slice

Galette Pérougienne (Lemon Sugar Bread) Continue reading

Pear and ginger muffins

I had the best of intentions last week, yet I still found myself with a half dozen pears sitting on my counter, too far gone for eating out of hand. That, of course, didn’t stop me from buying more pears at the market this past weekend. With an over-abundance of fruit and a decidedly fall chill in the air, it seemed as good an excuse as any for a little baking project.

Moody muffin

It would make a better story if this recipe came about after deep contemplation of a perfect bag of golden, freckled pears plucked from a tree with branches positively aching, overloaded with fruit; if I told you how the warming spice of ginger speaks to the new fall season and complements and contrasts the pear’s sweet flower smell. Or if I waxed poetic about the crisp fall leaves flying around me in eddies and waves of yellows, oranges, reds, purples, their sound the autumn equivalent of waves on the beach, while the sun’s angled rays stretches and pulls shadows across the ground.

Freckled pears

Truth? I stared at the pears on my counter on Sunday morning and had this conversation with myself: “These poor pears are not going to last a single day longer. You know, it’s been entirely too long since I made muffins. I wonder how pear muffins would be. And pears go so well with ginger and hey, don’t I have a bag of ginger bits somewhere? I bet if I mashed up the soft pears I could just add them to the liquid ingredients. Good enough, let’s try this.”

Streusel-ed

Like I said, the first version makes the better story, but sometimes the muffin is all you need.

Pear Ginger Muffins Continue reading

On baking bread and other risky things

How often do you take risks? Considering how much I love to research and analyze and construct and deconstruct and plan, taking risks is not exactly what I’m known for.

Cinnamon braid

But the past few years, I’ve been stuck. I needed to change something. You won’t find me on stage doing sketch comedy any time soon, but I heard a great rule about it (thank you Tina Fey, you are my hero) that I took to heart–the sketch and the characters only move forward if you say “Yes, and….” You can’t move a sketch forward saying “No;” I realized I couldn’t move forward with changes by turning things down, second guessing whether I’d be good enough, if I have enough time, if I’m smart enough, if I’ll get rejected, if I have enough experience, etc., ad infinitum. Those are the fastest ways to make nothing happen.

Swirled and sliced

The biggest “Yes, and” I’ve taken on has been simply taking more risks more often. I don’t mean risking running a yellow light or skydiving. I mean just trying things–this blog was one of the first. I didn’t know anything about blogging but I loved talking about food; I forgot most everything I learned years ago about photography but I had a camera. I didn’t know anything about self-promotion but I already happily shared food and recipes I loved. I’ve learned a lot, failed more than a few times, but that’s really the  point.

Sifting the flours and grains
Kneading

Sometimes the risks I’ve taken have been frustrating. I’ve been angry and sad and disappointed; I’ve yelled and cried and sat in my car hitting my steering wheel more than once. I haven’t gotten the changes I wanted at the pace I wanted them; some risks have made me question what I’m really good at and where I want to be. And from the same risks, doors have opened. I’ve become part of amazing new communities and met new friends; I’ve learned so, so much. Not just new skills (I’m looking at you, mountains of water-bath-canned preserves), but how to approach and process those risks and use them for my next “Yes, and…”

Resting
Rise, poke

So, bread. (How’s that for a transition?) I’ve never tried improvising a recipe like this–yeast! braiding!–but what’s the worst that could possibly happen? I use a few cups of flour, some milk, and learn something. (I first wrote “I waste a few cups…” but no, it’s not waste.) And I figured it out! Yeah, I researched a bit, and my first attempt was not what I was looking for (it was still good!), but I learned and made this. And it’s honestly one of my proudest baking accomplishments.

Cinnamon sugar, ready for blending
Cinnamon sugar, powdered
Cinnamon sugar-ed

It’s really hard to end up with something bad when you bring together three of the most reliable cooking and baking resources, but this bread exceeded even what I had hoped for. Cinnamon swirl bread has never appealed to me–it always tasted more like raisins than cinnamon and usually too sweet with the actual bread as an afterthought–but when I saw it come up three times in a month, looking so delicious and swirly and I imagined what it would smell like baking in the oven, I had to give it a shot.

Rolled
Ready to braid
Braid 1
Braid 2
Braided

I picked the features I loved most from each recipe: the whole/multi-grain process from Smitten Kitchen; my favorite soft sandwich bread base from Joy of Cooking, and the incredibly impressive (but ridiculously easy) braiding technique from America’s Test Kitchen. Two tries later, it’s just the right amount of sweet, definitely cinnamon-y, tender from the milk and butter, chewy and textured from the combination of flours and grains (and no raisins!). Without the cinnamon, it also makes a great sandwich bread.

Multi-whole-grain sandwich bread
Cinnamon and sandwich bread
Braided bread

So for my 99th post here, I will say yes, and…I’ll have another slice (with butter this time).

Cinnamon Swirl Multigrain Bread (with a plain variation) Continue reading

Indian as apple pie

I still remember the first bites of pakora and samosa, the little bowls of colorful condiments full of new flavors. Indian food brought me my first tastes of lamb (still pretty much the only occasion that I eat it) and lentils, and the rich and richly flavored sauces scooped up with soft, buttery pieces of naan. I remember coming home with my clothes saturated with the smell of spices.

Stacked Spices

When we were kids, my sisters and I each got one night a week, our “special” night, with each of our parents. For my night with my mom, it was either a movie at the Little Theater or a dinner out, often introducing me to something new: Greek, Japanese, Ethiopian, and of course, Indian. It’s continued to be a special occasion food in my life–birthday dinners then with high school friends (we felt so grown up when we finally didn’t need our parents to chauffeur us around), birthday lunches and dinners now with friends in Chicago and coining the term “Indian-full” when we over-indulge.

It’s the food I went to when I found myself suddenly back home earlier this year, spending the day hanging around the hospital with my dad, at night needing the familiar comfort of one of those high school friends over plates of samosas and naan and dal (and maybe a glass of wine or three).

Secret ingredient Flour+water=tastyRoti, all mixed.

As much as I love eating Indian food, I rarely make it; surprising considering my love of anything that involves spices. The few times I’ve tried, it just wasn’t quite right and I didn’t know enough on how to fix it. Last weekend, I was lucky enough to take a cooking class at Moksha Yoga, taught by a fantastic cook and cookbook author, Anupy Singla (her company and blog are also the title of this post). Over two classes she showed us, an attentive (if quiet) group of 10, how to make some of the simplest but most flavorful basics: dal (spiced lentils), basmati rice, salad, raita (yogurt sauce), curry (essentially, gravy or sauce), and roti.

Anupy Singla, demonstrating proper roti prep
Anupy Singla, demonstrating proper roti prep
Anupy, rolling like a pro
Rolling like a pro

Everything we made was spectacular, but the most fun was the roti, whole wheat flatbread similar to tortillas. Roti is the more common bread served in Indian homes, which makes sense–it’s simply flour and water, rolled, flattened, and quickly cooked in a hot, dry pan. Naan, on the other hand, needs yeast and rising and temperatures far beyond the capacity of most home ovens.

Little roti ball, flouredRaw rotiStamp stamp stampPoof!I may have done a happy dance

Making roti also means a fun little magic trick–in the process of cooking, the water in the dough boils and steams, puffing up the little circles of dough. They can be served with just about anything, made sweet or savory, stuffed with leftovers (those would be parathas), or even made with pureed cooked lentils instead of water for a little protein boost. I can’t wait to try these with a bowl of dal or cauliflower curry and rice!

Masoor dal
Our pot of masoor dal before it was devoured
Curry, pre-protein
Red curry made simply with onions, garlic, tomatoes, chiles, and spices–I can’t wait to try this blended with some soaked cashews to make it creamy

Roti Continue reading

Pizza, pizza!

Normally when I find or create a recipe that I want to share with you, I mess around with it for at least a few weeks to make sure it’s just the way I want it; it’s relatively rare that I find a recipe and almost immediately want to post it. But last Thursday, Deb at the inimitable Smitten Kitchen posted the holy grail of pizza dough. I mixed up the dough that night, ate it for dinner the next, made it again yesterday, and did my damndest to share with you as quickly as possible, because, well, pizza.

Is there anything better?

Great pizza dough seems to have a similar mysterious quality as great pie dough. Tomes have been written about the process for both, which is horrifically intimidating (I’m supposed to read what?! I just want dinner, not a dissertation!) Since it takes so few ingredients, undue emphasis (some would say fanaticism) is placed on what type of flour, where the water was sourced. People get scared of dealing with yeast and rising dough. Some say great pizza can just never be replicated at home without a wood-burning oven or a baking stone or a full-blooded Italian in the kitchen.

I call bull.

Escaping cheese didn't get very far

Look, it’s really not as complicated as all that, so please don’t be scared. I’ve struggled with pizza dough too, I’ve had versions I’ve liked for various reasons, but the biggest killer to me is the timing, which is what is so absolutely perfect about this recipe. Make it in 5 minutes the night before and it will be ready just in time for dinner the next night (and will keep in the fridge for even a few days after that)–no 6 hours or 16 hours or some similarly inconvenient timing for someone who actually has a day job (which is not making pizza).

All you need for amazing pizza Sticky doughIt is risen!

This dough doesn’t require kneading or rolling out, another confidence killer when it comes to pizza (and pie, now that I think about it)–just poke and pat it into whatever shape you like. You can get fancy with the flour if you want (I like half white/half bread flour), but you don’t have to; you can use a pizza stone, but a pre-heated baking sheet works quite well. Once baked, the pizza crust has a crackly outside but the inside is tender and chewy.

Topped Cheesed Bubbly

The toppings are up to you (though try to use a light hand with ingredients like sausage–for a topping-heavy pizza, you may prefer this), and you can make it thinner or thicker depending on your preference.

Golden brown and delicious

I implore you, if you have ever wanted to make pizza at home, give this a try, it may just change your weekly dinner rotation and will most certainly change your mind about easy homemade pizza.

Easy Pizza Dough Continue reading